We've all seen pictures from the 1950s of the classic nuclear family gathered around the television to watch hit shows like Gunsmoke, I Love Lucy, and Ed Sullivan. But nowadays, with wifi everywhere and most young adults choosing to stream their shows when and where they want, you're more likely to be watching Nailed It! on Netflix on your phone than gathered around the 4K TV with Mom and Dad for the latest episode of Roseanne.
If you're paying your own utility and phone bills, you've probably figured out that it's not really worth it to sign up for a cable or satellite TV package, which averages about $106 per month, excluding internet access, when you can stream shows for a fraction of the price from Amazon, Netflix, Sling TV, and other streaming services.
It's no wonder then that millions of Americans are getting rid of paid cable or satellite TV packages and subscribing to streaming services instead. In 2017, the major pay TV providers like Comcast, Charter and DirecTV lost some 1.5 million customers, according to Leichtman Research. And the trend is accelerating: Some 9% of pay TV subscribers in the United States polled by research firm Magid in 2017 said they planned to cut the cord in 2018, Axios reported, versus just 6% in 2016.
But in the excitement of leaving a hefty cable bill behind, there’s the chance that you could go overboard in the other direction—signing up for Netflix to watch Lost in Space, HBO for Game of Thrones, and Crunchyroll for when you want to nostalgia-binge Naruto—and wind up paying just as much (or more) than you did when you had a pay TV package.
Likewise, if your cable bill is on the low end, around $50 to $70 a month, it’s easy to imagine that one too many steaming subscriptions or one-off downloads from Amazon could leave you with a similar or even more higher monthly bill. For instance, a customer paying for Netflix Premium ($14 a month), HBO Now ($15 a month), and YouTube TV ($40 a month) would be spending $69 or about same as the cheapest cable packages—and that doesn't even count the price of internet access.
And don't forget the hardware costs. It’s easy to cancel your cable package and rush out to buy a streaming device like the Amazon Fire TV ($70) or the Apple TV 4K ($180) that offers way more than you need.
With all that in mind, here's how to make sure you're not spending more on streaming TV and movie services than you can afford:
Be honest with yourself
The trick to saving money in the Golden Age of media streaming is to take the time to figure out which services you'll really use and which you won't. For example, if in your excitement at cutting the cord you sign up for a Hulu subscription, but then realize that Family Guy isn’t that funny, you'll quickly regret paying $40 a month for Hulu with Live TV.
“You can oversubscribe,” said Luke Bouma, the founder of Cord Cutters News.
Of course, you can't figure out if you're overpaying if you don't know how much you're spending in the first place. Start by taking a look at your monthly internet bill, and add up the cost of all your streaming services. If you share services with friends or roommates, divide by however many people you share with. If you’re mooching a DirecTV Now account off your parents, then lucky you.
Don’t forget to include those one-off purchases like HBO On Demand for that boxing match or that Saturday night download of The Last Jedi from iTunes. Not sure what you bought? Check your credit card statement to keep yourself honest about what you’re really paying for and how often.
If you are paying more than $100 a month, it’s probably time to pare back. Consider cancelling anything you haven’t looked at in three months, or looking at free services like Crackle as an alternative (and let’s be honest, there’s more than one way to watch a movie or TV show for free online). There's also this thing called the public library—remember that?—where you can usually reserve DVDs online and pick them up at your local branch when they're ready. Total cost: $0.
Free trials are your friend—use them wisely
Because streaming services are newer and riskier than your traditional cable subscription, most offer some sort of free trial which often runs between a week and a month—ESPN+ offers a 30-day free trial, for example. Mastering the art of the free trial is essential to ultimately deciding what services you want to commit your hard-earned cash to.
But don’t get too excited. Sure, you could sign up for a bunch of free trials and fantasize about your life as a rich person that can watch American Gods as well as Bojack Horseman whenever you want, but you’re not really getting the full experience of each one in order to make an informed decision later on.
Instead, pace yourself and try one out at a time when your social calendar is wide open. “Sometimes I'll hear someone say 'oh I signed up for six different live streaming services at once,' and my opinion is that you can't really test them out and give them an honest look if you're having six at once,” Bouma said.
Always have an exit strategy
To make sure you don't lose track of the cancellation date on free trials before automatic billing kicks in, take a screenshot on your phone of the cancellation instructions the second you sign up and set a reminder on your phone. It can be surprisingly tricky to cancel some services—for example, CBS All Access makes you do it within iTunes—and the last thing you want to be doing the minute you finish hate-binge-watching Young Sheldon is fiddling around trying to figure out how to cancel.
For services you are already paying for, the beauty is that you can cancel at anytime without any repercussions. So check in often with yourself—and your wallet—and make sure that everything you’re currently paying for is absolutely worth it to you.
Even if you’re having a bit of a dry spell with Hulu because Netflix is much more interesting this season, you can always unsubscribe until it becomes attractive again. No hard feelings.